PhD Project: The Reconfiguration of the Environment

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PhD project by Ingrid Halland 2014-2017

Working title: Error Earth. Plastics, Air, Display. On the Reconfiguration of the Environment in The Universitas Project and Italy: The New Domestic Landscape, 1972

In early postmodern architecture discourse, a reconfiguration of the concept of the environment transformed both critical and spatial modes of thinking—a transformation which carried vast ontological implications. The present project examines how this reconfiguration was made explicit in two, closely related, episodes: Firstly, in the critical discussions at the symposium “The Universitas Project: Institutions for a Post-Technological Society”, and secondly, in the built environments displayed in the MoMA exhibition Italy: The New Domestic Landscape, both organized by the young Argentinian curator Emilio Ambasz in 1972. Thus, the project investigates how conceptions of the environment are developed in critical and spatial architectural postmodern discourses.

The Universitas Project symposium was a part of a larger research project initiated by Ambasz and funded by MoMA and The Institute for Architecture and Urban Studies. The participants at the symposium, all leading intellectuals in their fields, came from highly diverse disciplines: physics, psychology, linguistics, design, fine arts, cybernetics, microbiology, sociology, poetry, history, and cultural theory.[1] The issue at stake was how architecture could develop a new systematic design approach, which could tackle the possibly irresolvable societal, political, and ecological problems in the post-industrial world. The new design approach needed a new existential mode of thought, Ambasz argued, which “necessitates a breaking away not merely from old patterns of thought but […] from a whole way of beholding reality.” [2] For Ambasz, architecture and the environment existed in a dialectical interrelated process of co-production, further, the “mode of thought capable of structuring and restructuring the man-made milieu would have to comprehend an empirical as well as an existential…”[3] conception of the world. The empirical and existential conceptual domain—which had the capacities to synthesize architecture, technology, and theory into a complete and totally interrelated mode of thought—was cybernetics(or more specifically, the second wave of cybernetics). He labelled this cybernetic conceptual domain “design as a mode of thought”.

Italy: The New Domestic Landscape can be considered the spatial counter-part of the Universitas Project. The exhibition asked how design could tackle ecological, technological, and societal challenges of—in the words of The New York Times—“…our ultimate environment, the planet earth.”[4] Ambasz wanted the exhibition layout itself to comment on current critical issues in the design discourse and decided early on to separate the exhibition in two parts, objects and environments. The objects section contained individual and commercial objects displayed in the MoMA garden, whereas the environments included immersive, built environments displayed inside the museum.[5] Taking Ambasz’s cybernetic conceptual trope “design as a mode of thought” as the point of departure, the present research project will examine the design of the exhibition and the separation between objects and environments as a mode of thought. The project will explore how the reconfiguration of the environment and its ontological implications became explicit in the spatial arrangements, thus, how the display was a cybernetic site of thought.

The main hypotheses of my project are: First, the conceptual domain “design as a mode of thought” articulated a new all-encompassing environment. This was a cybernetic environment that operated in a constant state of reform and adaption. Second, this new environment destabilized the fault lines between objects and environments, thus rendering them uncertain and ambiguous. The project will ask how this reconfiguration of the environment was manifested within early postmodern architecture discourse by examining symptoms of these ontological fault lines in the critical debates in the Universitas Project, and within the spatial arrangement of the built environment displayed in the MoMA exhibition.

In conclusion, the project examines how the introduction of the cybernetic mode of thought in architecture plays a pivotal role in the nascent environmental sentiment of the period. The present research project will show how this new, reconfigured, environment was manifested in critical discussions and spatial sites, a manifestation which can be claimed to be a mostly overlooked aspect of the postmodern project.

  1. The Advisory Board for the conference, who also functioned as the peer-review committee, included Stanford Anderson, Rosalind Krauss, Carl Schorske, Peter Eisenman, Joseph Rykwert, Abraham Moles, Suzanne Keller, and Emilio Ambasz. Conference participants were Henri Lefebvre, Alain Touraine, Michel Foucault, Martin Pawley, Octavio Paz, Tomás Maldonado, Umberto Eco, Hannah Arendt, Jean Baudrillard, Christopher Alexander, Gyorgy Kepes, Manuel Castells, Gillo Dorfles, Ronald Dworkin, Meyer Schapiro, Sheldon Wolin, Anatol Rapoport, and Richard L. Meier.
  2. E. Ambasz, The Universitas Project: Solutions for a Post-Technological Society (Museum Of Modern Art, 2006), 21.
  3. Ibid., 22.
  4. Norma Skurka, “Home Was Never Like This,” The New York Times, 21.05.1972.
  5. In total, 11 environments were built for the exhibition. The participating designers included Archizoom, Ugo La Pietra, Gaetano Pesce, Ettore Sottsaas, Gae Aulenti, Gruppo Strum, Superstudio, and Enzo Mari. 
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